BRANDON — The pep rally began on time, the football game did not.
Officially, it will go down as a three-day postponement due to lightning strikes that covered the skies of East Hillsborough on Friday night. For a team on a four-year losing skid, the storm seemed redundant.
When an entire graduating class has gone without a victory on the field, who will bemoan another 72 hours? If patience is a virtue, then Brandon High is the most righteous program in Tampa Bay.
They sat through the rain on Friday, had their homecoming dance on Saturday and showed up Monday with more hope than you would suspect for an 0-42 football team.
When it was time, finally, for the game to begin, Brandon began lining up for the kickoff beneath a brilliant orange/gray sky. The Freedom High return team was anticipating, the crowd was standing, history was waiting.
And when the moment arrived, the kicker whiffed as the ball fell harmlessly to the ground.
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This is not a story you will likely hear in year-end prep banquets, but it should be. For this is a story of courage, perseverance and loyalty. A story of repeated heartache balanced by relentless hope. This is the story that should burrow in the heart of Friday Night Lights fanatics.
Brandon High was once among the flagship athletic programs in Tampa Bay. There was money, prestige and busloads of students. Brandon High won state titles in volleyball, soccer and track. For more than three decades, the wrestling program has been among the best in the state, and possibly the nation. The football team was a state semifinalist in 1984.
Around that time, Brandon was the largest public high school in Florida with enrollment topping 4,000 and more than 1,100 students in a single graduating class.
Then Armwood High opened nearby. And Bloomingdale. And a handful of other neighboring schools. Enrollment at Brandon High dwindled to the 1,700 range, and the majority are economically disadvantaged students who receive free/reduced lunch.
With school choice now an option for parents, they can shop for more successful athletic programs that provide a greater opportunity to be seen by college recruiters.
Which means, once a program has fallen, it is harder than ever to climb back up.
“Have I heard conversations about this? Yes. Have I met with parents? Yes. But it’s not in a negative way,” said principal Dr. Jeremy Klein. “In talking to alumni, it’s always about how do we get some of them back on this campus to support us now and to get us back to what was. Here is the reality of where we are now. So let’s rock with what we have right now.”
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This is not the longest losing streak in state history, but ignominy is not far away.
Westland High in south Florida lost 47 consecutive games from 2013-18, and Forest Hill in West Palm Beach lost 43 in a row. Leto High once dropped 46 in a row on the field, but their losing streak is not official because they picked up two forfeits after the fact in 2010 and 2011.
While other programs have depth charts and position coaches, Brandon’s Daryl Stewart has had to scour the hallways for potential players. He has two assistant coaches, and only one is on campus with him.
The streak was already in full bloom when he took over in 2020, and most of the better players on the team were already heading out the door as transfers. For a guy used to being immersed in Xs and Os, Stewart found himself focused on intangibles and life lessons.
“One of the most fun parts has been that psychology game to get them to believe in themselves and believe in what they’re doing,” Stewart said. “I tell them, ‘You don’t think you’re special, but this is why you are.’ I mean, everyone is here trying to get good grades, but these kids are going above and beyond that. Some of them have jobs, some have to go home and take care of siblings or do other chores.
“Realistically, the only fun part of football is Friday night, right? Practice isn’t always fun, it’s hot and it’s hard work. And we haven’t had a lot of fun on Friday nights. But we’re trying to lift these kids up and help them tune everything else out, and I want them to know what they’re doing makes them special.”
And what has it done for the coach?
“One of the blessings I’ve gotten from coaching here,” he said, “is I’ve learned a lot about empathy.”
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The night was epic, the game was not.
Brandon’s special teams flubbed two kickoffs before permanently switching to onside kicks, Freedom’s defense could not stop the running game, and the box office could not figure out how to scan electronic tickets and so fans were just waved into the stadium.
Freedom took early leads of 6-0 and 14-8, and was about to go ahead again midway through the second quarter when Brandon’s Roman Mixon intercepted a pass in the end zone and returned it 102 yards for a touchdown.
Brandon was up 30-14 at the end of the quarter, but the mood was oddly edgy in the locker room. A year ago, the Eagles were up 12-0 at halftime against Leto but lost 14-12. Earlier this year, they were tied 0-0 with Leto at the half but lost 2-0 when a punt was fumbled in the end zone in the final minutes.
“We worked on breathing and calming them down,” Stewart said. “The kids were stressed out.”
There was no need to worry. Led by Chris Braswell’s 161 yards on 23 carries, Brandon wore Freedom down in the second half. Late in the game, an offensive lineman grabbed a teammate by the shoulder pads and shouted: “I’ve been waiting for this s--t my entire life!”
With the clock winding down and Brandon ahead 44-20 Stewart began walking to midfield for postgame handshakes when he was doused with a water cooler.
Later, as the crowd thinned out, Mixon reflected on the occasional taunts and teasing that he and his teammates have endured in classrooms over the years.
“You know,” he said. “I’m looking forward to going to school tomorrow.”
John Romano can be reached at email@example.com. Follow @romano_tbtimes.